Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jennifer’s Body, Redux: The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Actresses


I mentioned this in my roundup last week but it’s pertinent to readers here: I penned a piece at Salon about the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games. You can read the whole piece here, but the argument in brief is this: Katniss is a prime role for a young actress, one that we knew would assure whomever was cast in the part instant fame—and Katniss’s thinness is not just a part of the character description in the books, but a part of the plot itself. So when virtually every other role written for 21-year-old women is filled by a rail-thin actress, why would Hollywood choose one of its few performers who doesn’t look underfed to play the part? I don’t think it’s just blind casting; I think it’s a message about the dearth of juicy roles for young actresses.

But one thing kept nagging at me about my own argument: Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic as Katniss. She nailed Katniss’s ferocity, her vulnerability, her dance of a child having become an adult too soon. While I think there was something else going on with the producers, at least subconsciously, it’s also hard to make the argument that it should have gone to [insert name of other talented Serious Young Actress who’s had a chance to show her chops in a well-written, complex role—oh wait, there aren’t many, that was the point of my piece]. So when people counter my argument with, “Well, they just chose the best actress for the part”—and when I don’t have a shred of hard evidence to support otherwise—part of me has to agree.

But I think that’s also a bit of a red herring, and here’s why: Talented actresses are asked all the time to manipulate their bodies in order to fit a role. Beyoncé for Dreamgirls, Charlize Theron for Monster, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Renee Zellweger see-sawing between Bridget Jones and the other characters she played in the interim: Actresses don’t just get critical acclaim for physical transformation; they get press, and The Hunger Games team didn't shy away from that. (It’s interesting that men seem to lose weight for roles more than women, but an easy answer to that is that actresses are usually so slender to begin with that there’s little weight loss to be done.) Hell, look at the number of ballet-inspired weight-loss workouts that popped up with Black Swan. Talent alone wasn’t enough for Darren Aronofsky to direct Serious Actress Natalie Portman—who was, of course, already whippet-thin—to not whittle her frame for the film. So I don’t quite buy that the producers would have gone with mere talent as the reason to not instruct Lawrence to lose weight to play a hungry Katniss.

Let me be crystal-clear: I’m in no way suggesting Lawrence should have lost weight for this role, and I’m wary of the practice. (Yes, actors’ bodies are their “instruments” and bodily manipulation is a part of the trade, but do we really need to be encouraging performers—actresses in particular—to be even more focused on their weight? I mean, Mila Kunis, who does not have an eating disorder, started mimicking eating disorder symptoms after Black Swan wrapped. What happens to performers already prone to disordered behavior is upsetting to think about.) My point is that it’s not like losing weight to play a character is somehow verboten in Hollywood, and that for a character who is described as underweight and chronically hungry, it might actually might have made logical sense. So the fact that Lawrence didn’t lose weight to play Katniss makes me think that The Hunger Games team had an investment in keeping Lawrence looking, well, normal. Part of that investment might have been to defuse accusations (perhaps from wary feminist bloggers comme moi) of having taken a proto-feminist character and made her adhere to the beauty standard even more than Lawrence—slender, white, angel-faced Lawrence—already does. But I think the larger investment is what I fingered in the Salon piece: Figuratively speaking, they wanted to add more weight to Katniss. And adding physical weight to the character as written was an easy way to do that.

This might seem like a counterintuitive argument, but when I look at Lawrence’s own account of the intersection between Katniss’s frame and her own, I become more convinced that her body became a portal for all sorts of ideas that weren’t really about Katniss as written by Suzanne Collins. “You can’t diet,” Lawrence told UK Glamour. “Katniss is meant to be a hunter; she’s meant to be scary. Kate Moss running at you with a bow and arrow isn’t scary.” (Actually, that sounds terrifying, but I’ll give her a pass.) Decontextualized it’s sound logic, but within The Hunger Games it’s backward: Katniss, hailing from an impoverished part of the nation, should be feeling afraid of the heavier, stronger female contestants from the better-fed districts. The whole point is that Katniss survives through her agility, skill, and determination, not her muscle power—that despite the odds being never in her favor, she embodies the name of the Hunger Games better than any other contestant in the arena. Yes, Katniss could ostensibly have muscle from her outings in the meadow. But it wasn’t Lawrence’s biceps that made her ferocious in the movie; it was the intensity of her performance.

And again, in an ideal world, that’s how it should be. I’d love to think that Lawrence was cast solely because she gave a better audition for Katniss than any other actress could. But Hollywood rarely does blind casting; certainly it didn’t for The Hunger Games (as evidenced in part by the despicable number of people who were not only surprised that Rue was played by a young black actress but claimed that her race made the character less sympathetic—which, I mean, did they see the same movie I did? Or, for that matter, read the same book, in which Rue was explicitly described as dark-skinned?). They were extraordinarily fidelitous to Collins’s books—even minor characters like Cato were cast pretty much exactly how I’d envisioned them. (Except Woody Harrelson, but whatever.)

So I’m tending to think something is up here. But at the same time, I’m wondering if I’m adding to the problem by hinging an argument upon the body size of an actress—whose job should first and foremost be to act, which Lawrence did splendidly. I stand by my arguments but I’m wondering what you think. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s casting in The Hunger Games simply an instance of talent trumping letter-perfect character description? Was there something else going on? Was it a reconception of Katniss as having a different sort of strength—the “she’s meant to be scary” strength Lawrence references? Is this a step toward blind casting? And, on a slightly different note, are there ways to discuss the bodies of specific individuals without making value judgments that contribute to the larger problem of evaluating women for their bodies?

11 comments:

  1. In all the criticism of Lawrence's size, there's been little recognition of the fact that Katniss is, by the book, much better fed than most of her peers, because she is a hunter. I haven't seen the movie yet, but was there perhaps a desire to visually represent her ability to take care of herself?

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    1. Heather, that's a real possibility. Certainly it seems that's how Lawrence interpreted the role, with her comment about needing to look physically strong--this could be a case of me superimposing what I conceive of as "starvation" (which isn't always about being underweight) onto something that actually is a positive demonstration of power here.

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  2. I still haven't seen the movie -- plan to this weekend. I was really happy to see Jennifer Lawrence cast in the role though. Based on Winter's Bone it seems pretty clear why they cast her. She's a serious person and can play badass really well.

    The book didn't leave me the impression that Katniss had to be a fragile wee slip of a thing like 12 year old Rue. When she goes into the games, her biggest disadvantages seem to be that her district is poor and can't send gifts, and her coach appears to be a ridiculous drunk who is maybe not fully on her side. But it's pretty obvious from the beginning she does have a chance, because of the skills she's developed.

    As for physical size, when she puts on her father's old hunting jacket Collins doesn't go on about how she's swallowed up by the thing because she's so so tiny (at least I don't remember that). There are different ways to be thin. What happens to large-framed people in starvation situations? They don't lose their basic frame size. Lawrence is about my height, per Rolling Stone, so she's just a bigger-framed person who is, nonetheless, very thin. It doesn't seem out of line for the character and I don't see why it's generated so much chatter except, well, Hollywood craziness.

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    1. Cynthia, these are excellent points, and I think I've been procrastinating in responding to comments here because I wish I'd considered these before writing the piece for Salon. I stand by my original words--that in a world where every role written for young actresses goes to someone visibly underweight, casting someone who looks healthy in this role of all roles takes on a significance--but what you're saying here makes total sense. Really, the whole thing goes to show the intense scrutiny actresses are put under. I don't think this was a case of blind casting but I never want to lose sight of Lawrence's excellent performance here--which transcended any expectations I had about Katniss's frame. Thank you for this comment, is what I'm getting at!

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  3. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the movie (I was expecting trite fluff) -- first in that I found the whole thing to be a lot more blatantly political and subtly address lots of class and race issues which I expected it to erase entirely, and then also the same thoughts of "wow, she doesn't look anorexic / there aren't any gratuitous shots of how starving she is!" I think I was expecting Black Swan style ED-porn and also just figured she would be grossly sexualized in that "scrappy and strong but look how fragile and easy to break she is, isn't that sexy" (read: lisbeth) way and was genuinely shocked at how... not problematic i found the whole thing. Which is in and of itself a problem -- the fact that a pretty white girl who is like a size 6 or 8 instead of a 0, and who isn't blatantly sexualized the entire time, is surprising to the point of seeming almost transgressive? that's INSANE. but that just goes to show what Hollywood's "normal" is.

    It's almost pathetically optimistic to hope that this is the case, but I would wonder if there was some concern about media portrayals too: like, if someone higher up had the forethought to be all "Hey, a lot of little girls might be watching this movie, let's make sure that she's strong because she's strong and not gratuitously obsess over her body, ok? Wouldn't it be cool if we could make this about the story and not her boobs and collarbones, yeah?" But who knows.

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    1. Meg, I don't think your optimism on this front is pathetic. In retrospect, I think my take on this is partly about my deep cynicism on these matters: I can't believe that suddenly Hollywood decided to start casting thin-but-healthy-looking actresses just because. But the fact is, they *did* cast Lawrence, who falls into that category and is a wonderful actress. I don't want to just let the producers off the hook for everything...but it should be commended. It's a small victory.

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  4. See...what's weird to me is she is thin and has a perfect flat stomach....and we are talking about her not being thin enough for the part. Hmm....but she embodied Katniss beautifully and I never once thought she wasn't thin enough when I saw the movie. I don't know...

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    1. I think it's more about her not being "thin enough" to play the role of Katniss, who isn't thin in a glamourous sense but is underweight. But as other commenters pointed out, there's plenty of room for interpretation in the books about how Katniss actually looks, so I may have been waaaay too circuitous in my reasoning here...

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